Mardi Gras, Po-Boys and Streetcar Strikes | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Mardi Gras, Po-Boys and Streetcar Strikes

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My first trip to New Orleans was in July 1984, the summer it hosted the World's Fair. I was 13 and had gone to visit my best friend, Jenny, a New Orleans native who had moved back there from California a few months earlier. I remember pulling up to her family's home, half of a double-barrel shotgun house with a front porch, so different from the ranch- and Spanish-style architecture in Los Angeles. The air outside was like someone had taken the lid off a boiling pot of crawfish. Frogs, most of them squashed, littered the gravelly road. Although we were in the middle of the city, the only noise I recall was shrill cicadas.

Everything about the city was exciting and foreign to me, most of all the food. I had eaten shrimp before, but never the way Jenny's mom served it: heaped in a steaming bowl, beady-eyed, insect-like heads and all. My friend also introduced me to the city's less intimidating specialties: beignets at Café du Monde, chocolate snowballs topped with sweetened condensed milk, red beans and rice, gumbo, muffulettas. Other American cities consider themselves culinary capitals, but I doubt even New York City can boast as extensive or as accomplished a repertoire of distinctive dishes as New Orleans.

In a city that knows how to eat well any day of the year, you would think there would be more foods specifically associated with its biggest annual celebration, Mardi Gras—which means Fat Tuesday in French, after all. But the only Mardi Gras–specific must-eat is king cake, a sweet yeast bread frosted with colored sugar and containing a plastic baby surprise. We wrote about that last year, so this year I thought I'd talk about another of the Crescent City's culinary contributions, the po-boy sandwich, which has a history with some parallels to current events.

A po-boy is, in the most basic sense, the New Orleans version of a sub. It has a few distinguishing features, though. First of all, a proper po-boy comes on freshly baked Italian French bread with a crusty exterior and soft interior. As with most things in New Orleans, almost anything goes when it comes to fillings. They go way beyond cold cuts, and none of them are on Jared's, or anyone else's, weight-loss plan: roast beef with gravy, ham and cheese, fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried crawfish, fried catfish. I discovered what is probably the most unusual option during a later visit, after I had become a vegetarian—unfortunately, I learned, even a french-fry po-boy is smothered in meaty gravy.

According to the website for The Po-Boy Preservation Festival, which takes place each fall, the sandwich originated during the Great Depression. A pair of former streetcar conductors and members of the transit workers' union, Bennie and Clovis Martin, opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market in 1922. Their former union brethren went on strike in 1929 after contract negotiations broke down. The brothers expressed their support in a letter, writing, "Our meal is free to any members of Division 194... We are with you till h--l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm."

They kept their promise, handing out hundreds of sandwiches to hungry strikers. Whenever they saw another union worker approaching the stand, someone would say, "Here comes another poor boy." The sandwich became so associated with those "po' boys" (as it's pronounced with a New Orleans accent—and an oyster poor boy is an "erster po-boy") that it took the name itself.

The strike turned ugly—the company brought in strike breakers from New York to run the cars, prompting a violent uprising. One group set a streetcar on fire. The strikers had broad public support, and few people dared ride the streetcars until the dispute was settled, months later. By then, the po-boy's place in culinary history was cemented.

I tried to ask Jenny (we're still good friends, more than 25 years later) for a local's thoughts on the po-boy, but it turns out the day before Mardi Gras is not an easy time to reach a New Orleanian. Happy Mardi Gras, y'all!

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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